ABOVE: AHMAD BILAL, AKA VASILLUS
Vasillus is the moniker of New Mexico-by-way-of-Brooklyn musician Ahmad Bilal—quite the name for someone with quite the personality. Bilal has been a musician for years, playing in the band White Gallery (until his band partner was, sadly, deported) and dancing backup bounce with bounce-queen Big Freedia. Now, Bilal is beginning a new chapter as Vasillus—which is a darker project, something unexpected given his warm, hilarious personality. After spending years in Brooklyn, Bilal just relocated to New Mexico to find inspiration and a new place for his musical endeavors.
Vasillus’ debut 7-inch comes out in August, but we’re excited to premiere the track “Pangea,” which shows the otherworldly, yet remarkably human music Bilal has created (with the help of some major synths). We also spoke with Ahmad Bilal about opening for Snoop Dogg, bouncing, and singing Britney Spears.
ROYALS: Vasillus is the Romanian word for “royal” or “kingly.” I was playing with the idea of what that meant. I’ve always kind of thought of myself as the outcast of it all and sidelines-type of dude. It’s something I would tell myself to hype myself up. A lot of Vasillus is things that I do to hype myself up. [laughs] It’s self-serving, but it’s exactly how it started: just things to get me through.
ON “PANGEA”: It’s the A-side to the 7-inch coming out in August. I’m really stoked about it. It’s one of the first songs I wrote. I wrote it earlier this year. “Pangea” is the early state of the universe when everything was one continent. I had gone through some stuff, which made me reconsider my place in things; my space in certain people’s lives—guys-wise specifically. It’s a song about reassurance. At the end of the song, I repeat over and over, “Find me whole.” I always saw myself as one continent. Some situations make you second-guess your position of where you are in the world, who your friends are and your job. This song is me saying to myself, it’s totally fine. It’s my reclamation. I’m going to write this whole essay on it. I’m slowly doing that for each of my songs. I’m trying to explain what they are and what they mean. I perform it at every show that I do. It’s something I do to remind myself to be composed and keep it together: you’re one whole unit.
MOVING TO NEW MEXICO: I’ve always wanted to live here. The first time I came here was with my friend Linda. We went to the south of the state and saw the Guadalupe Mountains. There was this energy that flows throughout this state which is like nowhere I’ve ever been. It’s this constant inspiration. There’s a never-ending source of things to be inspired by here. Right now I’m talking to you while I’m drinking a beer and looking at a mountain. Literally, these are the only things I want right now. It’s a great place to go and start a new chapter. I really wanted to write my next record here instead of New York. It’s really easy, being in Brooklyn, to involve the same interests and influences that a lot of other musicians are making or doing, even unintentionally. There’s only so much space there. There’s so much sharing involved. It’s not a bad thing. A lot of people use it to make great stuff. I didn’t want to share my influences with other people, but not for a selfish reason—they were just my influences. It just made me way more invigorated by my own music. I’m a musician that’s affected by geography. It made a lot of sense to be here for the next record.
BKLYN: The things we have to do to pay rent in Brooklyn are ridiculous. You hurt yourself. I remember working at Mrs. Kim’s five days a week and also trying to finish a record. [Being a staple in Brooklyn] never fit into my music. It’s so funny that a lot of people in Greenpoint—I’d say 75 percent of them didn’t even know I made music. If they did, I’d say half of those people didn’t know the type of music I was making. You’d be surprised when I told people that I was making music, they’d expect this four-on-the-floor dance music. Then I’d play them my stuff, and they’d be like, “Oh….” You have no idea how many husbands I would know at Mrs. Kim’s that would be cheating on their wives throughout the week. They’d come in with their wives on Sunday and then show up with some other girl on Thursday. It was weird this weird trust that was put in my hands. It’s not that I didn’t know how to use it, but nobody wants that shit on them. As a bartender or service-industry worker, you don’t want that on you. Nobody knows how fucked-up and dark some of these trendy-ass areas are. Some of the things that pop up here and there are references to customers of mine. I’m taking all of the things I love down here [in New Mexico] with me. All that shit up there, I’ll leave in the recording studio.
BOUNCING WITH BIG FREEDIA: It was incredible. I bounced before I knew Freedia. We were introduced officially at SXSW. I was with Freedia for a year and a half. The one thing I took from being with Freedia was making really physical-sounding electronic music. She taught me physicality. We would go onstage and we would get up there and it was straight fucking aerobics for 45 minutes. It was bounce-aerobics. I lost so much weight on that tour. The openness to sexuality, gender, and culture… people weren’t used to seeing five black kids poppin’ in Boston. We played at this festival in Hartford opening for Snoop Dogg, and we were up there twerkin’ and shakin’, and one of the dancers was covered in tattoos. They all kept thinking that she was a guy, and they started throwing bottles. It was one of those things where you realized, they will never understand. That’s definitely someone who will never, ever get it. I don’t even try to make music for people like that. It’s different. After that, we definitely partied hard as shit. I definitely realized the physicality of it. The subsets of kids on the left were so happy and so into it. That means a lot to me.
TOURING WITH JULIANNA BARWICK: In Columbus, I covered a Britney Spears song and we went balls to the wall; it was one of our last shows. I covered “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman.” Halfway through, Julianna came through and started singing “Pangea” with me. Offstage, the craziest thing we did was probably Mardi Gras. Things got wild.